James Levine, 1943-2021

THE LONG-SERVING New York Times cultural critic John Rockwell (pictured) observed James Levine at close quarters for most of his life.

by John Rockwell

James Levine was a great opera conductor, until he wasn’t. I don’t want to dwell here on his failings, or his personal peculiarities, his illnesses and his sad last years. I appreciated him as a member of the audience and as a critic and reporter, mostly at the Met but also elsewhere, especially Salzburg, and on his innumerable CDs and DVDs.

I first heard him—probably heard of him, really—conducting Tosca at the San Francisco Opera in the spring of 1971, shortly before his Met debut with the same opera in June. It was a true announcement of a talent who would make his mark—no surprise to those who had followed him as George Szell’s assistant for six years in Cleveland. But in 1971 he was still only 28, and everyone who heard those Toscas knew immediately that he was on his way.

What made him such a sovereign opera conductor? There was the bracing breadth of his repertory, from Mozart to Schoenberg and beyond. He was equally at home in the core Italian and Germanic repertory, but also with French and Russian and Czech composers and mid-century moderns, though his tastes in newer music remained steadfastly with the more severe composers (Carter, Babbitt, Wuorinen) and some of their European counterparts than with “downtown” post-modernism.

Levine attracted the best singers of the day and won the trust of generations of Met audiences. No fear of overexposure, even while leading one third of performances a season and some 2,500 of 85 operas over his 47-year Met career and commanding most of the prestigious premieres and galas. (His canny manager, Ronald Wilford, had won him generous per-performance fees beyond his munificent salary). During his Met years he held titles from principal conductor to music director to artistic director then back to music director, when he became music director in Boston, to music director emeritus. For decades, James Levine was the Met.

His catholicity of taste led some to bemoan his lack of a personal musical profile, of interpretive distinctiveness. If he was an A- in everything, could he be an A+ in something? But for me, he shone at his best. Levine never indulged in the niceties of “authentic” performance practice; the Met house at 3,900 capacity was too big for that. His Mozart was in the warm and engaging Vienna Philharmonic style, and deeply satisfying as such. That conservatism carried over to his initial opposition to supertitles (a compromise was found in the back-of-each-seat MetTitles). And to his resistance to Regie-Theater. The hardly untalented Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was his favorite director-designer, but there was also John Dexter, who from 1975 to 1981 produced some of the most innovative and inspiring stagings in Met history.

Levine’s Berlioz was path-breaking (his complete Troyens) and his Verdi and Puccini breathed with the singers and sang with Italian cantilena. His Wagner was stirring, at least until his performances slowed down and grew increasingly slack in his later years. His championing of 20th-century music was admirable and idiomatic, although the limitation of budgetary constraints robbed him of some of his hopes, like a production of St. Francois d’Assise (still not staged in New York).

Despite his long experience and best efforts, Levine never came close to matching his successes in operatic repertory in the symphonic field. His grandest achievement was making his Met orchestra into a world-class ensemble and bringing it into Carnegie Hall for an annual spring series. But his tenures at Ravinia, Munich, Boston and Verbier, as well as his regular concerts with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, failed to match his operatic endeavors.

The main general managers during his Met years, Anthony Bliss, Bruce Crawford, Joseph Volpe and Peter Gelb, mostly supported their demanding conductor, although Gelb had a well-documented falling out with Levine that led finally to Levine’s dismissal in 2017 and the subsequent lawsuits and financial settlement. The coronavirus has taken a grievous toll on the Met, which Levine lived to witness, including the erosion of his beloved orchestra. But whatever one thinks of Gelb’s tactics, he did not cause the pandemic. Neither did James Levine.

Levine’s legacy will live on in his recordings and in histories of the Met. He was painfully guarded in interviews and in most social contexts beyond his fellow musicians. But personally I remember him with enormous affection, for his countless great performances and for the lasting impact he had on the company he defined for nearly five decades.

Music at Kohl Mansion

By Janos Gereben

PERFORMING ARTS organizations trying to cope with the challenges of pandemic times rarely stick to their usual format … and then there is Music at Kohl Mansion. It is unusual in maintaining the usual. The current 38th season presenting ensembles from around the world seems similar to “normal” seasons, except for virtual presentations replacing live concerts in Burlingame’s enchanting mansion.

Music at Kohl Mansion Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy calls the season a realization of “our core belief that the arts are essential to the health of our communities at all times. We are determined to play a key role as ‘second responders’ in providing relief and comfort through easily accessible, affordable virtual programming this season, and to preserving the vitality of our music community by supporting and promoting artists who have lost so much in the past year.”

There is an element of persistence and recycling in that all the ensembles were originally booked to perform live this season, having been booked before the pandemic, and Moy is “thrilled that each one of these brave artists has enthusiastically embraced the virtual medium.”

Moy also sees a silver lining, “some advantages to offering online broadcasts, including the ability to serve a global audience, the opportunity to provide ‘encore’ performances, which we cannot do in our live seasons, and the surprisingly personal and intimate visits to our artists’ hometown venues around the world.”

Individual tickets for all five programs in 2021 are now on sale, priced at $20 per household, with a “Buy Four, Get One More” promotion through Jan. 28. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) Box Office, (650) 762-1130. Each concert includes a preperformance talk by musicologist Kai Christiansen.

“The shooting locations of our Virtual Season 38 are a source of special interest to us,” says Moy. “The historic Teldex Studio in Berlin, site of multiple Grammy-award-winning classical, pop, and rock recordings (Fauré Quartett, streamed on Nov. 1 and 5); Goodwin Recital Hall at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (Amit Peled, streamed on Nov. 15 and 19); our very own Great Hall at Kohl Mansion (Alexander String Quartet). We have some surprises in store for the rest of this season’s shooting locations that will offer some lovely discoveries.”

Music at Kohl Mansion continues the season with its local mainstay, the Alexander String Quartet (pictured above), on Jan. 24 (repeated on Jan. 28) — first concerts begin at 7 p.m., the repeat at 6 p.m. The only ensemble Kohl presents regularly, a baker’s dozen since 1993, the Alexander has also been visiting local middle and high schools in San Mateo County as part of the Kohl for Kids/Music in Schools Program.

The program will be part of the quartet’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130. This concert will be one of the last performances to hear the quartet perform with founding violist Paul Yarbrough, who has announced his retirement this season. Fred Lifsitz, Alexander second violinist, told SF Classical Voice:

By definition a performing ensemble thrives and grows through its relationship with a live audience. This year has felt like the “year of the pen pal” in terms of reaching our audience though virtual means. It has, in a profound way, made us all aware of the very strong and precious bond we have formed over decades with our friends at MAKM.

The great support and ability to continue to share the musical works we all treasure with our audience — and to receive so much generous feedback —has helped us keep our eyes, ears and hearts set on the day, not too far off, when we will gather together in the same Great Hall at Kohl Mansion to experience the vibrations of Mozart, Beethoven, and others, together with dear friends. Keeping our eyes on that prize.”

The Maxwell Quartet follows on Feb. 28 (repeated on March 4), with Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Opus 106, and a selection of Scottish folk songs. The ensemble was formed in 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland, and has won prizes in many competitions, including the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition.

“I happened to be in New York at the time of the U.S. debut of the Maxwell Quartet, and after hearing the quartet’s very first North American concert [at the famed Schneider Concerts at the Mannes School of Music] in early January 2019, I booked them on the spot,” says Moy.

“Little did we suspect that all touring would abruptly end just 14 months later, making their live Music at Kohl appearance impossible. Known for infusing their concerts with the sounds and sights of their native Scotland, the Maxwells will treat us to some of their favorite Scottish folk tunes, and will wear their customary kilts, of course.”

Originally founded by the Ying siblings in 1988, the Ying Quartet performs on March 14 (repeated on March 18), playing Smetana’s String Quartet in E Minor, From My Life; Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade in G Major; and Giacomo Puccini’s I Crisantemi (The chrysanthemums).

Moy’s comment: “I am personally fascinated by family ensembles. The Ying Quartet is a favorite — originally four siblings, now three sibs.” (After the retirement of Timothy Ying as first violinist Robin Scott joined the quartet in 2016.)

The French-Belgian Quatour Danel with clarinetist Pascal Moraguès gives a concert on April 11 (repeated on April 15), playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, and and other work to be announced.

“Being French,” says Moy, “I’m proud to have introduced superb French chamber musicians to our audiences in the past: Quatuor Parisii, 2006; Quatuor Modigliani, 2007; Paris Piano Trio, 2008. It’s been almost a dozen years since our last concert by a French ensemble, and we jumped at the chance to offer the celebrated French Quatuor Danel, after several years of trying to find a date that worked for them. And as a bonus, we will be treated to Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Quintet with the principal clarinetist of the Orchestre de Paris, Pascal Moraguès.”

Another family ensemble, the Horszowski Trio, is scheduled for May 9 (repeated on May 13), with a program of the Sibelius Piano Trio in C Major (“Lovisa”), and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Opus 99.

“I’m always fascinated by the dynamics of familiarity, such as the Ying Quartet, in these small, intimate musical ensembles” says Moy, “and the Horszowski Trio, whose founding violinist and pianist are husband and wife. Both groups are beloved at Kohl.” The trio takes its inspiration from the late piano master, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, whose last pupil at the Curtis Institute was Rieko Aizawa, the Trio’s founding pianist.

Since its debut performance in New York in 2011, the Horszowski Trio has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Critically acclaimed by Gramophone as “the most compelling American group to come on the stage,” and hailed by The Boston Globe for its “eloquent and enthralling” performances, the ensemble traverses the extensive oeuvre of traditional piano trio repertory as well as commissioning and premiering new music.

Horszowski Trio violinist Jesse Mills comments on their appearance:

“The Horszowski Trio is honored to be performing once again for Music at Kohl Mansion this Spring. We are appreciative that we can share our music with their audience virtually this time, given the circumstances.

Of course, we are aching to connect again in a live format, and the vaccines are extremely exciting because we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for now we need to be patient and respectful of this deadly virus.

We marvel at the possibilities given to us by technology, and we are excited to share these two wonderful works by Sibelius and Schubert, which are joyful, uplifting and colorful! Perfect for an optimistic springtime for all of us.”